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Armageddon ready to pack it all in

24/10/2012

We’ve just made it through Labour Day Weekend here in New Zealand, and this means one thing: it’s time for the Armageddon Expo, an annual celebration of Pulp Culture. Except it hasn’t called itself that for many years now. In fact, Armageddon as an event has changed considerably since it began back in 1995. Personally, I don’t think it has changed for the better.

Let’s start with the location: For many years, the expo was held at the Aotea Centre on Queen Street. If you ever attended one of those events, you’ll remember the chronic issues they had with overcrowding, air conditioning, and performance space. Sure, it was great having it in the middle of town, but something needed to be done. In 2009, the expo moved out to the ASB Showgrounds in Greenlane, a space purpose-built for large conventions and shows. It isn’t quite as easy to get to as the Aotea Centre, but the extra space has allowed the expo to grow considerably. Unfortunately, this is where the problems begin.

The main problem with the Showgrounds is the ticketing area. Attendees channel through a very narrow entry point, causing massive delays. This resulted in a 90+ minute line for people who had not pre-purchased tickets the first year it was held there. Things aren’t as bad now, though the organiser seemed happy that they’d managed to keep the wait to just under 40 minutes. At least it wasn’t raining that day. To make matters worse, the area immediately behind the entry is a thoroughfare between the main stage and the exhibit halls. There is also a café with tables to take up some extra space. If you’re not a fan of crowds, this is not a great experience to have. I’m a pretty big guy and I still get jostled by neck beards and mouth breathers.

This is something that could be VERY easily fixed, and with only minimal effort. Right next to the building that houses the main stage is an empty area that is normally fenced off to prevent people getting in for free. Almost every other event I’ve attended at the Showgrounds sets up their ticket booths in this area. It’s perfect for it. You’d only need half a dozen booths, one or two dedicated to people with pre-purchased tickets, to keep the queue moving pretty quickly. On top of that, you wouldn’t clog that thoroughfare area, either. Now, there may be reasons why the organisers choose not to do this, but I’m guessing they’re not more important than attendees waiting up to 40 minutes to get in the door.

While we’re talking about tickets, there’s one thing I’d like to point out: Don’t tell us it’s cheaper to pre-order your tickets online when the company providing the tickets slaps a $6 booking fee on top of the purchase. It’s actually more expensive to purchase a single ticket online, and you break even if you buy two. That only encourages more people to pay at the door, making the lines even longer.

Before I talk about the event itself, I’d like to say something about the website. It does pretty much everything it needs to do, except tell you when things are on in an easy to find way. If you want to get a list of which events are on at which times you have two options: download the show booklet for the appropriate day (only available half way down the site’s main page) or look on the Special Events page of the site. Special Events? Surely basic schedules aren’t that special. As someone who lays out content in an easy to use fashion for a living, this site hurts my brain. It feels like an old Geocities site with some graphical upgrades. Again, there may be reasons why they went with this particular layout, but it is something they should seriously consider looking at. Smartphones are popular these days, maybe someone could whip up a simple app.

Moving on to the expo itself, it was good to see so many people in attendance this year. Moving to the Showgrounds really has allowed it to grow well beyond its earlier limits. This has also allowed the expo to become more diverse in the events it offers. However, while some things have increased their presence at the show, others are barely present. I only spotted one or two comic book artists this year, and the only wargaming products on sale were some half-price copies of Dreadfleet (that still weren’t selling) and two copies of the new 40k starter box. I don’t expect Armageddon to resemble GenCon in terms of the products available, but it would be nice to see something, anything.

Ultimately, it comes down to what the stores and companies who attend want to sell. If they think they can make more money by selling anime-themed products, then that’s what they’ll do. It’s just a shame that this is how things have gone. It’s getting harder to get your hands on less mainstream wargaming products through local stores, and this sort of attitude doesn’t help things. Imagine the number of new people you could reach by running some quick demos at Armageddon. That’s what used to happen back in the day, but that all seems to have fallen by the wayside in favour of cat ears and cheap plastic laser swords.

And then there were the booths that weren’t even trying. Seriously, with the imminent release of The Hobbit, you’d think that there would be more to their booth than some fake grass, a fake log, and some display cabinets showing off the new toy range. It felt like someone’s personal toy museum. Not a single item was on sale, but you could go into the draw to win a prize. I know that the toys are new, but you can’t tell me that they weren’t able to put something aside that could be sold at Armageddon. It seems like a massive wasted opportunity.

The other booth that boggled my mind was the one for EB Games. Best I could tell, there wasn’t a single game (console or PC) on sale. There were a few that you could pre-order, but the rest of the items on sale were either accessories or game-related merchandise. Were they worried that people wouldn’t want to be buying an expensive game, so left them all at home? Their competitor, Mighty Ape, had no such worries and appeared to be making hand over fist selling games and many other things besides at their booth.

Speaking of missing product, the Toy World booth was completely devoid of Lego. In fact, when my wife asked the booth staff if they had any, they asked if she was looking for Kre-o*. Kre-o? Really? I know they’ve got the licenses for big action movies (thanks to being owned by Hasbro), but what about the new Lord of the Rings Lego range? Star Wars Lego? Armageddon would be the perfect place to sell these items – and if they’d had any on sale they might have received some of my money. In the end, the only booth I spent money at was the one selling American candy that was previously either unavailable or very difficult to find in this country. I would have also purchased a TARDIS teapot, but we checked and it’s just the TARDIS mug with a spout.

There was one booth that seemed really out-of-place, too. Bear in mind that Armageddon is meant to be a family friendly event. Some of the gaming booths have R16/R18 areas for the more violent games, but they’re walled off and kept secure so that little kids don’t wander in and see something they shouldn’t. There was one booth that wasn’t worried about such restrictions, however. A liquor company was selling their range of alcoholic products, including a brand of absinthe that contains wormwood (normally heavily restricted). On top of this, they were offering free samples of many of their products. Sure, they were checking ID, but they’re still offering up alcohol in full view of anyone who walks by. It’s not the same as selling explicit or borderline legal material, but it’s still a concern considering the large number of kids who attend the show.

If booths and merchandise aren’t your thing, Armageddon also has panels, Q&As, and other structured events on offer. These are normally pretty fun, Awkward Question Guy aside. This year’s expo featured a pretty good lineup, with a number of actors from Supernatural, Game of Thrones, and other popular shows in attendance, including a return visit from Stargate SG-1’s Christopher Judge and Tron himself, Bruce Boxleitner. The panels I attended were most enjoyable, even if Judge does get a little TMI and Boxleitner was meant to be appearing alongside three other members of the Babylon 5 cast as well as the show’s creator. Unfortunately, guests pulling out at the last-minute is a common part of Armageddon. Sometimes they get sick, sometimes they get work, it’s just how it goes.

What is ridiculous, however, is when guests do attend, but don’t arrive until part way through the weekend. This is even more annoying when they’re scheduled for events that end up being cancelled. This was the case with a couple of this year’s guests. For whatever reason, they didn’t arrive until mid-morning on the Saturday, missing photo booth times and half of a panel session. This panel delay had a flow on effect for the rest of the day, affecting more sessions.

While it’s not so bad to sit in an air-conditioned theatre for a few minutes waiting for someone to arrive, it’s even worse if you’re standing in a queue, the middle of the exhibit hall, waiting for a photo with someone who may not arrive in time. It didn’t help that the expo staff appeared to care very little about letting people know what was happening, let alone making sure that any queues that formed didn’t block off corridors or other areas of high foot traffic. At GenCon, the organisers assigned volunteers to ‘break’ lines at certain points, making sure people didn’t take advantage and cut in. At Armageddon, lines were left to snake and weave through the halls at random. This meant you often had to walk through a line to get where you were going, which is uncomfortable at the best of times.

My wife was particularly unlucky and ended up spending most of her time first standing in queue to book her photos with her chosen guests (two of whom were running late), then in a queue to buy tickets to get said photos signed, and finally in the multiple queues for the photos. In the end, the queue to get tickets for signing was so long and moving so slowly that she cut her losses and only got the photos. Oh, and don’t think you can buy a photo session or signing ticket on Saturday for another day, you must use them on the same day or lose them. A reasonable restriction, unless there are colossal delays that prevent you from being able to do things when you want to.

My own experience with the expo staff was not much better. The first two panels I attended took place on the main stage, but the third was held on the smaller Stage Two. Unfortunately, this room was left off the map included in the expo booklet, and no signs appeared to be posted to show you where to go. I though I knew where the room was located, in the upstairs area above the information booth, but when I got up there I only found one room open, empty except for a few people waiting for an anime movie to start screening. I asked the staffer outside the room where Stage Two was and he simply shook his head and said he didn’t know. He pointed me towards another staffer who initially told me to return to the main stage. Grabbing a spare booklet and pointing out the panel I was looking for she suddenly realised what I was asking and showed me to the correct room. One that was only a few metres from where we were standing, but with closed doors and no staff standing outside. I had even walked past the room moments before without realising it was there.

This is not the sort of organisation you should expect from an event that has run for 17 years. Misunderstandings with volunteers is one thing, but not clearly marking rooms that will be heavily used throughout the weekend is another. For all the advertising, and flash, it makes the whole affair feel a bit amateurish at times.

All in all, I’m leaning more and more towards avoiding the expo in the future. At this point, the only reason I might attend is for a particularly impressive guest – though I won’t buy my tickets online until the last minute, y’know just in case they pull out.

* Correction: The staffer actually asked if she was looking for “Halo”, not “Kre-o”. A pretty poor response to her question, either way.

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